Friday, August 26, 2011

On the rumors that Libya’s Gaddafi may flee to Venezuela

On the rumors that Libya’s Gaddafi may flee to Venezuela

W. Alejandro Sanchez
Research Fellow
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - August 26, 2011

In recent months, governments across the world as well as the international media have pondered about Mohamad Gaddafi’s future as leader of Libya, following a 42 year dictatorship. Now that the rebel forces control virtually all of the country, including most of Tripoli, the country’s capital, the rebels' objective has switched from overthrowing Gaddafi to finding him. As the capital of the North African state has fallen, the current location of the former (arguably) Libyan head of state, as well as of other high profile members of his cabinet and family, like his brother-in-law Abdullah al-Senussi (the country’s intelligence chief) and sons, is a question that has yet to be answered. The Libyan rebels have offered a $1.6 million reward for finding Gaddafi, dead or alive.

One aspect that has remained constant is the support by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for Gaddafi. As several governments continue to recognize the rebels’ main political entity, the Transitional National Council (TNC), as the country’s legitimate government, Chavez has stated that Caracas will not establish relations with the TNC and will continue to recognize Gaddafi as Libya’s ruler.

Venezuela as a hiding spot?

As the Libyan leader’s whereabouts are currently unknown, in August 20 a Libyan rebel source in Benghazi said that a Venezuelan plane landed on the island of Djerba to evacuate members of Gaddafi's family. When these rumors appeared, an article in the UK newspaper the Daily Mail mused that “maybe President Chavez would still be willing to let him [Gaddafi] retire to Caracas, but getting there won’t be easy,” due to NATO’s no-fly zone over the country, rebel control of most of the country and a NATO fleet in the Mediterranean. In any case, Gaddafi eventually went on television and stated that “I want to show that I'm in Tripoli and not in Venezuela […] do not believe the channels belonging to stray dogs."

The main issue is not whether Venezuela may be an possible “safe haven” for Gaddafi to flee to if he realizes his time as Libya’s ruler is over. The point to be made here is “why” is the South American nation of Venezuela, presently under the rule of Hugo Chavez, a former army officer, coup-plotter and admirer of Simon Bolivar (a 19th century Latin American hero), is so often referred to as a possible refuge for the (former) Libyan ruler.

A recent blog post by James Bostworth for the Christian Science Monitor explains the reasons why Gaddafi may not go to Venezuela. I figure I might as well just repost his arguments here:

1. “Transportation. In order to get to any of these countries in the Western Hemisphere, Qaddafi would need to arrange a direct flight and avoid flying over any territory where ICC [International Criminal Court] warrants might come into play. This obstacle can be overcome, but it's a transportation hassle.

2. Surrender. If Qaddafi comes to the Americas, he is essentially giving up the fight. Logistics are challenging in getting to this hemisphere, but they are much harder and potentially impossible if he wants to lead a rebel or insurgent movement to regain power from this side of the world. Coming to Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua means he gives up the fight and admits he will never again lead Libya, which goes against his personality.

3. Change. While this is less true for Cuba (though anything is possible), the prospect for a government change in Nicaragua or Venezuela should concern an exile-seeking dictator. As certain as Ortega and Chavez are that they will win reelection in the coming months, there is always the possibility that they will lose in this election cycle or the next. Qaddafi, who ruled for four decades, doesn't want to fly into exile only to have to change countries again as soon as the leadership changes.”

He does give a reason why Gaddafi may go to Venezuela though:
1. “Qaddafi is not logical. Even though basic logic says Qaddafi should not do something doesn't mean he won't do it. It's that uncertainty in his actions that has kept people guessing for so many years. So while he may understand the reasons he should not show up in Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua, he may decide to do so on a whim.”

I would add that Gaddafi may be persuaded to do so. After all, most of his family, including several of his sons and daughter and the intelligence chief, have yet to be captured; they are most likely hiding with Gaddafi himself. Hence any of them (or all of them), could convince the (former) Libyan leader that it is in their best interest to go to Venezuela (maybe arguing that they can plan Gaddafi’s comeback from Caracas).

The Gaddafi-Chavez friendship
In an article for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), I discussed Chavez’s friendship with Gaddafi and the leaders of other states that are generally regarded by the international community as pariah or problematic states, like Belarus, Iran and Zimbabwe. However, it seems that the friendship of the two leaders has taken a whole new dimension in view of the ongoing civil war in the Maghrebain state. Chavez has maintained a strong relationship with Gaddafi both personally and at the inter-governmental level for over a decade, and has made numerous diplomatic visits to his counterpart in Tripoli. In 2004, Libya awarded Chavez with its annual Gaddafi International Human Rights Prize for resisting imperialism. In addition, Gaddafi named a new soccer stadium near the city of Benghazi (now the headquarters of the rebels) after Chavez in 2006. In return, the Venezuelan leader presented Gaddafi with a replica of the sword of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar following the 2009 Africa-South America Summit.

The British daily The Guardian recently published an article by Mike Gonzalez entitled “How can Latin America's 'revolutionary' leaders support Gaddafi?” In his analysis, Gonzalez discusses Latin leaders like Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and how they approach Communist/Socialist ideologies and relations with both the West (i.e. the U.S. and Europe)and pariah states like Libya.

In another article in El Universal (August 24) the author explains that:

"Chávez stubbornly accused NATO and the United States of waging a war to grab the Libyan oil and he lamented that European banks had frozen the accounts of Libya's international reserves. On Sunday, August 21, in the midst of the battle for Tripoli, the Venezuelan president lambasted again NATO shelling. However, he did not made reference to Gaddafi's potential asylum while the fight for the Libyan capital city escalated and looked final."

(Chavez sends letter of support to Gaddafi (in spanish)

If Gaddafi does go to Caracas… what then?

Let us imagine for a moment that Gaddafi (and probably some of his relatives and closest allies) end up in Caracas and Chavez offers them asylum. What would occur then? For the record, there are examples of how the Venezuelan government under Chavez of has offered asylum/a safe haven to individuals that were sought by the justice systems of other countries. For example, Vladimiro Montesinos, intelligence chief under former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, hid for eight months in Venezuela (Chavez denied knowing where he was) until the government eventually captured him and extradited him back to Lima. More recently,

“Venezuela’s handover of a senior member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is on hold after the man requested asylum. Guillermo Torres Cueter, also known as “Julian Conrado” was captured in May in southwestern Venezuela and the government of President Hugo Chavez said that it cannot extradite the FARC leader until his asylum request is reviewed.”

Should Gaddafi end up in Venezuela, and Chavez refuse to extradite him back to Libya or the ICC, this would isolate the Venezuelan government even more regionally. I doubt international organizations like the Organization of American States, UNASUR or the United Nations would seriously suspend Venezuela’s membership over this, but Chavez will hardly be making any new friends. In addition, such an action would give cannon fodder to anti-Chavez policymakers in the U.S. who tend to portray Venezuela under Chavez as some regional security threat (hinting that the country may be developing a nuclear arms program with Iran, its arms purchases from Russia, close ties with China etc). Chavez will still have his oil to maintain some international relevance and avoid full isolation, but he cannot continue to rely on that forever.

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